Minnesota Supreme Court rejects snake breeder’s appeal

Examples of the snakes that Scott Nellis breeds at his Coon Rapids home with a 12-ounce can of Coke as a size comparison. Photo courtesy of Scott Nellis

The Minnesota Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by Coon Rapids resident Scott Nellis to overturn two citations issued by the city of Coon Rapids over his home-based hobby and business of breeding snakes.

Without comment late last month, the state’s highest court denied a petition for review filed Oct. 30 by attorney Timothy Baland, representing Nellis, following a decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals Oct. 7 affirming the city’s action.

Nellis had appealed the action of the Coon Rapids Board of Adjustment and Appeals, which upheld the staff-issued citations to the court of appeals.

The board Dec. 6, 2012 had rejected Nellis’ appeal of the administrative citations issued by the city and upheld by the city’s hearing examiner.

The citations accused Nellis of being in violation of city code by maintaining an illegal home occupation and keeping nondomestic animals (snakes).

The board, which comprises residents appointed by the Coon Rapids City Council, agreed with the arguments of Assistant City Attorney Doug Johnson that Nellis’ operation was not an allowed home occupation accessory use because it was not clearly incidental and secondary to the residential use of the property and that he possessed prohibited snakes under the city’s non-domestic animal ordinance.

The action approved unanimously by the four-member board ordered Nellis to remove all animals from the city prohibited by code, reduce the total square footage of his home occupation in the home to be no more than 25 percent of the habitable square footage and reduce the ammonia level inside the home to be less than one part per million inside the residence, with no ammonia detectable outside the home.

The board’s order was put on hold by the city until the court process had ended.

According to Baland’s petition for review to the Supreme Court, the appeals court did not rule on the constitutionality of the ordinances under which the city cited Nellis.

In his appeal, Nellis challenged the constitutionality of the Coon Rapids home occupation ordinance on the grounds of vagueness and the non-domestic animal ordinance for not having a “grandfather” clause, violating equal protection and not being supported by a rational basis, Baland states in his petition.

In addition, the Board of Adjustment and Appeals acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in affirming the two citations and that the enforcement of the ordinances against Nellis was discriminatory, Baland wrote in the appeal.

According to City Attorney David Brodie, city staff are pleased with the Supreme Court outcome. “City staff’s expectations going forward is that Mr. Nellis will voluntarily come into compliance with respect to his citations,” Brodie wrote in an email.

“The city attorney’s office along with pertinent city staff will continue to monitor this matter to ensure compliance.”

Compliance includes Nellis removing the snakes that fall under the city’s non-domestic animal ordinance and reducing the area in the home set aside for what the city calls his occupation to make it an incidental use, Brodie said.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision not to review his petition for review, Nellis provided the Herald with an email he sent to Coon Rapids City Council members.

“Apparently it wasn’t important enough for them to review even though two very interested parties had filed ‘amicus curiae’ briefs and the appeals court basically did not make a decision one way or another on the constitutionality of Coon Rapids ordinance 6-500, instead deferring to the ruling of the decision of the Coon Rapids Board of Adjustments and Appeals, which wasn’t allowed to interpret the constitutionality of any ordinances,” he wrote.

“So, nothing got decided. It was never my intention to bring this matter to the courts, but I was forced into a corner and felt that I had no other options.

In his email to councilmembers, Nellis asks them to consider changing the non-domestic animal ordinance as it applies to the Boidae snakes which he breeds.

According to Nellis. these boas were legal in Coon Rapids prior to September  2010 when the non-domestic animal ordinance was pass and all of a sudden, they are deemed a “public safety” threat and needed to be banned as “non-domestic” animals.

“I’m trying to work with the city for now,” Nellis wrote in an email response to questions from the Herald. “I talked to my attorney about further action, but for now he doesn’t think that probable...but it could still be possible.”

The number of Boidae snakes he has now is over 40, some very rare, endangered in the wild and very expensive, according to Nellis. “I have no idea where to move them and any type of move would be very costly and at this time of year possibly deadly to the snakes,” Nellis wrote.

Over the part two years  Nellis has sold quite a few at shows at substantial discounts to pare down his collection and he has about 150 snakes, left, but once the Boidae are gone, he will not be in violation of the ordinance, he wrote.

He believes he is in line with use of home law, “now it’s a straight 25 percent of the finished space of your home, Nellis wrote.

“I would like to continue my breeding hobby, but if the city is going to continue to harass me about it, I might have to reconsider..or file a different lawsuit,” he said.

Nellis has been raising snakes in his Coon Rapids home since 1996 and first checked applicable city ordinances before doing so, and he checked again in 2007 when he decided to turned his hobby into a hobby/business and started a website.

He has sold some of his snakes at reptile shows and also online, but not by people coming to his home, Nellis said.

Following a complaint from a neighbor of an odor coming from Nellis’ property, the city was issued a search warrant of his property which was executed Oct. 26, 2011.

At that time, Nellis had some 300 nonvenomous snakes, plus 400 mice and other animals and reptiles in his home, but by the December 2012 hearing, he said he had about 220 snakes, of which more than 100 – pythons and boas – would be considered illegal under the city’s non-domestic animal ordinance.

But, writing the opinion for the appeals court panel, Judge Doris Huspeni rejected the arguments raised by Baland in Nellis’ appeal and could not find any basis for concluding that the city had acted unreasonably.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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